Volume 14, No. 2
Sustainable Development of Environmental Resources?
Clark Wolf, Iowa State University Director of Bioethics
In the face of rising energy prices, we often hear calls to “develop” domestic oil and gas reserves. The idea that natural resources are undeveloped encourages us to think of them as underutilized and available for present exploitation. In the context of economic hardships, we have additional reasons for developing our natural resources, and by contrast, the goals of environmental protection may seem relatively trivial. We are sometimes told that environmental laws merely protect the interests of wealthy environmentalists and that such values come at the cost of slower economic growth and development. The term “development” may be deceptive in this context. The development of natural resources should be an advantage for later generations, since they will acquire the labor we have invested. Additionally, sometimes resource development does produce enduring benefits. For example, we in the present generation have benefitted from the development of durable infrastructure. How many of us would truly flourish if we were set back in the predicament of the first human beings to set foot on North America after crossing the ice sheet covering the Bering Strait?
Development or destructive consumption?
But the “development” of resources sometimes simply means their destruction. The destruction of the Atlantic cod fisheries, which was the result of joint overfishing efforts by both Canada and the United States, was not development in any productive sense. The result of this sort of “development” is disadvantage for later generations who might have benefitted from a healthy fishery. Once the fish are taken and the resource effectively destroyed, it’s clear that the development of these fisheries is simply an unecessary loss. Whenever development involves the destruction of a resource that might have been managed sustainably for the indefinite future, it represents a net opportunity loss for the future.
The case of the orange roughy
Consider the case of orange roughy, a fish species that arrived on the global fish market in the mid-seventies. Originally known as a member of the “slimehead” family, the fish was renamed “orange roughy” for marketing purposes. When the fish became available, it was heavily marketed and immediately popular. The industry responded by finding increasingly efficient and effective ways of catching these fish to satisfy consumer demand. At the time, little was known about the lifecycle of the fish or its growth patterns, so consumers and fishermen did not realize that these fish were old. The average age of a consumable-sized orange roughy is more than 40 years. These fish do not reproduce until they are 30 years old and have a lifespan of 130 years. Because of this biological reality, depleted orange roughy stocks are remarkably slow to replenish, even under the best of circumstances. The original orange roughy fisheries quickly dwindled and then crashed under the pressure of industrial fishing. Of the eleven known fisheries around New Zealand, seven are seriously depleted, and two have not been studied. Some surmise that the remaining two, the strongest of the lot, may still be above the legal minimum of 30% of the un-fished level. Fisheries experts now tell us that there may be no way to manage a sustainable commercial harvest for this species. Although it can sometimes still be found in grocery displays, orange roughy is listed by the Monterey Bay Aquarium as a fish to avoid as environmentally-inappropriate and unsustainable. More
The Mission of the Iowa State University Bioethics program is to support research, teaching, and engagement in bioethics.
The term ‘bioethics’ is often used to refer to biomedical ethics, but the scope of the Bioethics Program at ISU is much broader than this: bioethics includes ethical issues that arise in agricultural and environmental sciences and policy, veterinary and human medicine, and in the life sciences more broadly.
As a program, we aim to nurture reasoned examination of bioethical issues pertaining to agriculture, food, animals, and the environment, to provide ongoing assistance to, and education of science faculty members who wish to introduce ethical issues to their students. More broadly we aim to support ISU faculty members as they reflect on various moral dimensions of their research.